Dedicated to classics and hits.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


New Grub Street
by George Gissing
Oxford World's Classics Edition
p. 2009; originally published in 1891

  There are two main problems with the idea and the execution of the"1001 Books to Read Before You Die" series  The first problem is that the editors use the word "BOOKS" to mean "NOVELS."  All 1001 Books to Read Before You Die are Novels, not one is non-fiction.  Even the books that aren't novels are there because they are antecedents of the novel.
   The second problem is the over-representation of the significance of works from the recent present.  In a book that take up close to 1000 pages (960 if you must know.) the last hundred or so years take up 800 pages- meaning 200 pages for every novel before the 20th century.  I would humbly suggest that if there are only a hundred or so worthy novels written between 1700 and 1900, there were the same amount or fewer in the 20th century, rather then another 800 or so books.
    The time immediately prior to that transition from the "long 19th century"- till 1914, to the twentieth century is a crucial period for the transformation of the Audience, similar to the transformation that occurred during the so-called "rise of the novel" in the late 18th century.
    New Grub Street by George Gissing is a solid attempt to portray the beating heart of artistic self awareness about the market.  This locale is London England in the late 19th century- late 1870s- 1880s.  His characters are Authors trying to succeed in the world of publishing- either by writing fiction, stories and articles in the London Press of the period- which has to count as the first modernish marketplace for Artistic product.  It's certainly the first Artistic marketplace where an Author could portray such a market place in a work of art.
   Although the style of Gissing's writing places him squarely inside the mid-late 19th century realist/psychologist tradition of novel writing, there are moments of self awareness that resonate with the modern reader.  The main characters- all male writers with varying degrees of Artistic self importance and worldly success range from Reardon- the "tortured Artist" who dies- abandoned by his heiress wife and forgotten by the public.  Harold Biffen- author of the "stream of consciousness" anticipating "MR. BAILEY, GROCER" is the fierce, uncompromising modernist Artist- he ends up poisoning himself.  Milvain is the knowing young hustler who "understands how the game is played."

  You could easily imagine the plot of New Grub Street transferred to any local indie rock scene in America or Europe, because Gissing so perfectly captures the mind-set of Artists struggles with the reality of the Market.

  The message of this book really hit home with me- call it the futility of artistic endeavor- because it takes place in West London- in the exact same place where I studied abroad... IN THE 90s.  Harodl Biffen's garret was three block from my dorm/hostel.  It was in London, during this time, that I essentially decided to pursue a legal degree rather then a career as a "writer."  Unlike me, Gissing's characters are all in on writing- to stop writing- as Reardon does later in the novel- is considered the ultimate disgrace and considered good cause for spoual abandonment.

  If I could have given advice to the characters in this novel I would have said, "GET OUT OF LONDON IMMEDIATELY!"

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